Nine Days in October


Friday, October 21
Poste e Telegrafi

On a Friday evening in late October a gray Fiat van pulled to the curb in front of a goldsmith’s shop near the Via dei Coronari in Rome. To the van’s right, a haggard plane tree, its roots anchored in cobblestones, draped tattered branches over the one-way street.

From the outside, there was nothing about the truck or its driver to arouse suspicion. It was a flat-nosed vehicle with the distinctive markings of a commercial rig—vertical white line on the front bumper, slanting red stripe running halfway up the right side of the back door. In red on the side panels were the letters SIP and the four-line, jagged-wave symbol of the Italian State Telephone Company. The driver, a nineteen-year-old kid, set the brakes and extinguished the van’s headlights but left the motor idling. Beside him, a two-way radio crackled with static.

“We’re here, Beppe,” he said over his shoulder, then stepped into the street. For a moment he froze as a blue Alfa Romeo sedan moved toward him. A Giulietta 1.6 … slowing to a crawl. He rubbed his forehead, hand covering his face, and glanced sideways at the plates. He could just make out the red EI to the left of the numbers. Esercito Italiano. Military staff, not Carabinieri. He exhaled, his breathing shallow.

At the back of the van, he watched the Giulietta disappear around a corner. His fingers were shaking. He lit a cigarette, tossed the wooden match aside, then sucked smoke deep into his lungs. He tried to exhale slowly, pulled hard a second time, and choked on the smoke. Expelled by the force of his cough, the cigarette ricocheted off the back of the van and landed on the stone pavement at his feet. He swore and ground out the butt with his tennis shoe.

Someone cracked the double back doors. “Hurry the fuck up.” A hoarse whisper that sounded like the Calabrian, Remo. Scrawny asshole.

The driver reached into the opening. Darkness inside. Blurred shapes. He removed two reflec­tive barricades, set up one to keep the rear end clear, and placed the other toward the front to provide for an easy exit.

* * *

In the back of the van, in dim light, three men and two women checked their weapons. Beppe Fiammetti, the gang’s leader, slipped a pistol from its holster, chambered a round, and thumbed the safety. He carried a 9mm Beretta, the 13-round version of the automatic that was the weapon of choice of both the U.S. and Italian armed forces. Like the submachine guns and hand grenades they carried, the Beretta had been stolen from an underground armory at the naval base in La Spezia.

“Everybody clocked and blocked?” He loved the jargon. Cocked and locked. Loved twisting it, too.

“What’s the rush?” Remo’s voice punched through the darkness. “No reason to get jumpy.”

Beppe could feel the heat prickle his cheeks.

Oily runt always has to question everything. Fucking peasant. Should’ve stayed in the hills like his half-witted brothers.

“You ready, Mara?” Mara was Beppe’s girlfriend, a law student at the University of Rome. She was nearly ten years younger than him, not a beauty by fashion standards but solid, with an open face and a broad forehead framed by cropped black hair. She wouldn’t give him a hassle. She carried one of the submachine guns—a Moschetto Automatico Beretta or MAB, which hung from a neck sling; he’d heard her draw back the bolt and lock it into firing position.

She reached over and squeezed his left arm. “Ready to dock when you say bowl.”

Beppe grinned. Way to go, Mara! Let Remo choke on that one. Guy hated the word game they loved.

Remo snorted, cutting short Beppe’s grin. “Don’t pull the pin on a grenade, Mara. That’s all we need—one rolling around our feet.”

Mara said nothing in response but Rita giggled. A shadow in the darkness. Beppe imagined the sheepish dip of her head, tight black braids falling forward over her skinny shoulders. She was Remo’s girlfriend—the gang called them the erre mosce—the trilled R’s. Remo and Rita. She usually stood up for him. No use asking her if she was ready; she’d just look at Remo and wait for him to respond.

And no use asking Graziano. He was always ready. Had too much hate in him not to be pumped up. An undercover DIGOS agent had shot his girlfriend in the face at point-blank range two years earlier during an attempted robbery of a Cassa di Risparmio in Ferrara.

A light flared as Remo lit a cigarette. The flame illuminated an unshaved face, his gaunt cheeks caught in the flicker. Remo was getting to look as anorexic as Rita. Wiry little son of a bitch, hard as an olive pit.

The driver was back in the cab. Beppe could hear him fooling with the two-way radio. Still no word from the lookout. The lookout would be near the SecurMark office, his lanky frame hunched over the wheel of the Volkswagen, waiting for the armored truck to leave.

* * *

In the cab, the driver slipped into his jacket and then lit another cigarette. Cooler now. He rolled up the window, leaving a gap at the top to vent the smoke. He wished he had something to make him look busy. But none of the pedestrians seemed to pay him any mind. Most walked by with their heads turned toward the display cases in the goldsmith’s shop to his right.

Suckers. Caught like dumb fish by a little glitter and flash.

* * *

The shop, the bottega of a craftsman who made his own jewelry, was no different in appearance from any of the other luxury boutiques that dotted the heavily touristed areas radiating south like spokes on a damaged wheel from the Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza di Spagna. But this goldsmith’s shop, unlike the jewelry stores located on Via del Babuino, Via del Corso, and Via delle Mercede, was removed from the ultrachic shopping areas. It was located on a street devoted primarily to antiquarian and second-hand stores, just off Piazza Navona.

Fifteen minutes before seven o’clock, closing time, and the windows of the oreficeria still glittered with their displays of rings, earrings, brooches, bracelets, and necklaces. Inside, four clerks, working in pairs, prepared to strip the more expensive items and arrange them on trays to be deposited in the night safe in the back office. The larger pieces that had sat in the window to the right—silver plates, ornate gold clocks under glass bells, gold cigarette lighters, and several fancy saliere d’argento—had already been removed and stored away.

Outside the shop, in the growing darkness of what had been an unusually smoggy day for late October, a young clerk yanked down the two lattice-like iron grilles. She pad­locked one to the bottom frame but stopped when the other was halfway down—a signal to shoppers not to enter while allowing those still inside to slip out. When she stood, her smock fluttered in the first draft of an evening breeze and she noticed bruised clouds to the west, their upper margins stained with ochre. She lifted her head to the sky and took a deep breath, her sun-streaked hair cascading around pearl earrings. It would rain before long, washing away the haze.

And then, purposeful again, she ducked back into the shop, where an American family—father and two daughters—lingered near the cash register. At first, the clerk had mistaken the older daughter for the man’s wife; she was a well-formed teenager, dressed in a pink sweater over a print skirt. The younger girl, a restless kid in jeans and baggy sweatshirt, was a nuisance, complaining every few minutes that she was tired, until the clerk’s fellow employees had finally lost their patience and given up trying to humor her. The minutes were dragging; it seemed the three Americans had been hanging over the jewelry cases for hours.

* * *

Claudia had finally narrowed her choice to two necklaces but couldn’t decide between them. She was wearing a twenty-eight diamond flower necklace set in 14-karat yellow gold.

“They’re both so beautiful, Dad.” She swung her head, shoulder-length chestnut hair swirling over her shoulders, earrings flashing.

Richard Donovan couldn’t help smiling. “You can’t go wrong,” he said.
It was good to see her caught up in the moment. Not many parents could say their kids worked too hard, but he often thought that about Claudia. On weekends, to earn spending money, she worked at Rillito Stables, where she cleaned stalls and exercised horses; she volunteered at the local vet’s office, dog sat for people on vacation, talked about being a vet herself some day. She wasn’t the type to get caught up in jewelry.

He turned away. He’d been flirting with the older female clerk, a blond-haired woman, looked to be in her thirties, no wedding band. Somehow, she fit right in with his thoughts. All afternoon, in the land of millefogli and tiramisu, all he’d been able to think about was homemade, deep-dish peach pie. Thick, warm slices of fresh peach swimming in a crusty syrup and slathered with pure vanilla ice cream. And this woman—with just a hint of perfume, with a look that had caught his eye and lingered, with a smile that crinkled the skin at the corners of her eyes just enough to say I’m a rich, full-bodied, ready-to-eat peach—made him realize how long it had been since he’d lived a life that wasn’t focused solely on his girls. Leave it to Italy to bring out the desire. And the clerk had been talking about the heat!

“Sis, let’s go. I’m tired.” God, his youngest daughter again. The trip was hard on Pam; unlike Claudia, she hadn’t studied Italian, was left out of most conversations, to his surprise even felt overwhelmed in the museums, where they’d spent most of their time.

Claudia frowned. “Pam, be quiet. We’ll be leaving in a minute.”

She turned toward him. “What do you think, Dad? I like the rubies in this one.” She touched a necklace lying on the counter. “But this one’s so nice.” Hand moving to her chest. “I like how the flowers sparkle.”

Donovan shrugged. “Take your time, cara. No need to rush.”

Her birthday gift, sixteenth just passed, a special treat. Besides, he liked talking to the female clerk. A Florentine accent. He’d heard it in the rough gorgia of her hard c’s and h’s. But he glanced sideways at Claudia a moment longer. He was proud of his girls—well-mannered (well, Pam, most of the time), smart, more interested in reading than in video games or TV, their idealism a tonic, their cheerfulness contagious. He didn’t take pride in the job he’d done; all he’d given them was his time—and his love. But somehow, despite the tragedy in their life, that had been enough.

He caught the clerk’s smile, wondered what she was thinking. They’d been talking about the weather—the safe topic for strangers—the muggy heat. He nodded. “Hot for October, alright. Especially this late in the month.”

“I can’t wait until Sunday,” she said.

He raised his eyebrows.

“Day off.” A quick smile. “The beach.” She hesitated. “But maybe too cold to swim. The sea in October …” She shrugged.


Donovan turned to look at his youngest daughter. She’d been tugging on his belt. Now she grabbed her sister’s skirt, head bobbing plaintively, and began to kick at the base of the counter. “Let’s go.” Pam had been pestering both of them to leave for the last half hour. He noticed the clerk behind the counter was no longer making an effort to hide his impatience.

“Signorina …” The clerk paused expectantly, then gestured toward the counter.

Claudia looked up at her father. “I don’t know, Dad. Maybe we should come back tomorrow, when we have more time.”

“We’re leaving for Perugia tomorrow.”

“Not until ten.”

Donovan took a deep breath. He ran a hand through his disheveled hair. “It’ll be easier if we decide now. An extra five minutes won’t kill them.”

* * *

—Reprinted from Nine Days in October by Ron Terpening by permission of Stuyvesant & Hoagland. Copyright © Ron Terpening, 2007. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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